Riyadh's fight against extremism must expand

Muslim nations need to deal with the most foundational aspect of modern extremism if they truly want to combat it, writes Hassan Hassan

King Salman of Saudi Arabia and US president Donald Trump shaking hands at the opening session of the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. EPA / Saudi Press Agency
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The Saudis should consider themselves lucky that mainstream media in the US had been busy with controversies related to Donald Trump’s ties with Russia and the firing of the FBI chief before his visit to Riyadh over the weekend. Despite the preoccupation, though, his choice of Saudi Arabia as the first visit overseas attracted profound criticism. One opinion piece in The Washington Post, for example, lambasted the American president for “endorsing their culture”, in reference to the sword dance.

The announcement of a $110 billion (Dh404bn) arms deal between the United States and Saudi Arabia, the richest nation in the world and in the region, respectively, in front of a gathering of Muslim nations whose people suffer extreme poverty, is a legitimate reason for cynicism. But even critics of Saudi Arabia should welcome some aspects of the summit as a positive change.

The festivities and the highlighting of the American-Saudi partnership pushed new boundaries. Just a few weeks ago, for example, authorities in Saudi Arabia came under fierce attacks over activities organised by the newly-established General Authority of Entertainment. High-profile clerics openly criticised the activities. Saudi Arabia's partnership with the US has been a source of extremists’ anger with the kingdom for two decades. It was the key factor behind Al Qaeda’s terrorism in the early 2000s. It was not surprising, then, that Hamza bin Laden, Osama bin Laden’s son, who Al Qaeda seems to be grooming to lead it in the future, chose the event to call for a revolt in Mecca. Al Qaeda has also released an article describing the Saudi rulers as apostates for their open alliance with the US.

As many Saudis will say, organising the summit and the bold commitment to fighting extremism with the help of the West meant proponents of change in Saudi Arabia won the day.

Even though Saudi Arabia has demonstrated its commitment to fighting terrorism, particularly since 2001 and after the 2011 Arab uprisings, myths about Riyadh’s foreign policy still persist. In the minds of many, Riyadh supports groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIL, despite the fact that its opposition to Islamists and jihadists was once a cause for tension between it and other countries such as Syria, Egypt and Libya.

More needs to be done and Riyadh should take the opportunity to build on the progress made over the past few years. The brand of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia remains an issue for the kingdom. But many, including supposed experts, have a superficial and confused understanding of this.

Those who equate this brand of Islam with the extremism of these groups, or even claim it is the main conduit of such extremism, also demonstrate a lack of understanding of these organisations.

Citing a book used by extremists, who understandably seek legitimacy by claiming they subscribe to mainstream scholarship, is often misleading if an observer does not understand how these books are taught by extremists and how other ideas, such as revolutionary Islamism, play out more prominently in extremist ideologies.

Observers also have to acknowledge that the kingdom has been moving in the right direction for many years, and encourage it to do more to fight extremism at home and terrorism abroad. At the same time, Saudi Arabia must combat the fundamentalist and sectarian rhetoric that perpetuates the very problems it seeks to root out.

The process of change, with regards to rolling back extremist and sectarian discourse, is too slow to be felt. The Saudi push against groups such as Al Qaeda, ISIL and Hizbollah should be matched with a systematic pushback against clerics who spew sectarian hatred at home. Without doing so, the Saudi-led effort will be like attempting to put out a fire by throwing more wood into it. King Abdullah of Jordan said it best during his six-minute remarks: “Only a holistic approach can address the complex layers of the threat, from its evil ideas to its attack on prosperity and security … Intolerance and ignorance will only aid terror groups.”

Saudi Arabia can achieve far greater results in terms of regional leadership if it embarks on a bold process of reversing sectarianism. A way forward is already in place. The Jordanian king mentioned the 2006 Amman Message, signed by 552 Muslim figures from 84 countries. The declaration recognises the validity of the eight Shia and Sunni schools of jurisprudence and forbids declaring adherents to any of these “madhahib” as apostates. Of the signatories, 15 were from Saudi Arabia, including the late king Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz, 21 from Iran and 28 from Iraq.

The Amman Message deals with the most foundational aspect of modern extremism, namely the propensity to define who a Muslim is and to subsequently justify the excommunication of those who do not meet the criteria.

It is how groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIL deem Saudi Arabia, and other Muslim countries, to be apostates. The way to counter this growing challenge is to adopt the type of discourse upheld in the Amman declaration. If Muslim nations truly want to combat it, they should begin by turning the declaration into a policy.

Hassan Hassan is a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror

On Twitter: @hxhassan